Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Joanna Lee

This afternoon’s Prom moves away from the Royal Albert Hall to Holy Sepulchre church, for a concert given by the BBC Singers. The programme is an all-English selection of works, finishing with the world première of At this man’s hand by Joanna Lee. In anticipation of that, and to provide a bit of background and context to the work, here are her answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Joanna for her responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

The majority of my music has a theatrical or programmatic basis, with a core part of my output being vocal music, whether that is a concert piece or opera. At this man’s hand is set to a text that appears on a memorial window dedicated to Sir Henry Wood (founder of the Proms) at St. Sepulchre’s Church, where the concert is being held. Thus, the programmatic element here is the light penetrating through the window, dispersing and falling onto the ground of the church. My piece is last in the concert and acts as a blessing to Wood, so it embraces the more lyrical and tonal aspect of my work, which ordinarily is a halfway house between tonality/atonality, conventional/experimental and lyrical/jaunty. My music is often noted for a quirky and witty quality, although the context of this commission did not call for this.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

I ‘fell’ into composition – I am not from a musical family so did not realise being a composer was a career, but composing was a necessary part of A-Level music so, as tedious as it is, this is how I began. I quickly found I much preferred it to performing, not least because of a rebellious streak that preferred experimenting, a thirst for knowledge and a shyness that was more comfortable away from the stage. It certainly felt like a conscious decision, given that it is not the easiest of career paths, but it does not feel so in terms of the satisfaction I find in composing – when I was forced to take a break, when juggling composing with motherhood became too hard, I missed it terribly. Composing is cathartic, it keeps me sane.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

I studied at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Joe Cutler, my first composition teacher, opened my ears – unbelievably, I had not realised there were living composers until I met him, let alone the array of styles; he instilled an unrelenting zeal to compose. Richard Causton and Edwin Roxburgh, my subsequent teachers, are both brilliant craftsman, which encouraged an ear for precision. I also studied on the Britten Pears Contemporary Composition course 10 years ago with Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews – both have been a huge influence and support since, not just in terms of craft but the practicalities of being a composer.

I grew up in East Suffolk, so the legacy of Britten has always loomed over me. The turning point in my work was when I came across the music theatre repertoire of the 1960s – Berio, Kagel, Ligeti, Maxwell Davies etc. Here, I found my biggest repertoire influence and what I really wanted to do as a composer: contemporary vocal music and opera. The singers Jane Manning and Sarah Leonard were an indispensable guiding force, helping me negotiate the practicalities of experimental writing alongside lyrical singing.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

A blank slate. On occasion, I may reuse previous tone rows or materials if they merit further exploration. Otherwise, it is a blank piece of manuscript, a pencil and a piano (and some panic and procrastination) for every new work.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

A large portion of my works are for voice yet this is only my second piece for a professional choir. Of my more recent vocal pieces, it is much smaller, which has been refreshing given that I have fulfilled commissions for three operas (two chamber, one large-scale) in the past five years. The work also feels more conventional in light of being a blessing but it has been liberating to compose for the BBC Singers, given their skill level. The initiation of the piece stems from the parameters of the commission of course, but the inspiration behind the work is the 150th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s birth.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

If it was the more lyrical and conventional aspect, I would suggest Blue Blaze. For something more theatrical and contemporary, Every Inch of Many Effigies. To hear the wittier side of my work, Jimmie’s got a goil.

7. What’s next?

A break! I have been composing solidly for 11 months – including a new opera – so I am ready for a rest and to recollect my thoughts (plus, I would like to spend some time with my young children)! In the mean time, I have a children’s opera going on tour from September – Peace at Last, based on the children’s book by Jill Murphy of the same title – with Opera up Close. The opera was written in conjunction with Gallions Primary School, a state school in east London where music is at the heart of the curriculum and every child learns an instrument for free. It was inspirational to see the openness of the children, who are from many races and religions, to contemporary classical music.

I will start composing my next commission in a few months but the details are yet to be announced…

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